May's Ministers Plot Softer Brexit to Keep U.K. in Single Market

  • DUP deal could keep Britain in customs union: senior official
  • New Tory civil war looms between Brexit-backers and Remainers

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Some of Theresa May’s most senior ministers are working to moderate her plans for a hard Brexit, even suggesting the U.K. could remain in Europe’s single market and customs union, as the prime minister fights to stay in power.  

After her election gamble backfired, May is now so weak and reliant on the support of political rivals inside and outside her Conservative Party that she’ll be unable to force through her vision of a clean break with the European Union, according to three senior government officials.

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In a sign that a fresh clash over Europe is looming among the Tories, Brexit Secretary David Davis said it’s "pretty plain" the government wants to control the U.K.’s borders and laws, which means leaving the single market and customs union while trying to negotiate a new trade deal. "We spent ten months devising that strategy,” he told ITV.

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While she left her cabinet largely intact on Sunday, May’s weakness was reflected in her decision to bring back a pro-Brexit challenger for the party leadership, Michael Gove, as environment secretary. She kept as her foreign minister Boris Johnson, another leader of the Brexit campaign whose first task was to reject reports he planned to make a bid for May’s job. May also effectively named Damian Green, who wanted to stay in the EU, as her deputy.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is said to be positioning himself as the chief advocate of a softer Brexit. He told May he would only agree to serve in her cabinet if she gave him more influence over the withdrawal negotiations, according to one person familiar with the matter who declined to be named citing confidential discussions.

A senior minister said the fact May intends to rely on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party means she could be forced to keep Britain in the EU’s customs union, as well as the single market. Another minister said pro-European Tories would be emboldened to make the case for a softer deal with the EU that prioritizes the interests of businesses.

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“It’s very hard to see how a hard or disruptive Brexit can come out of this,” Tony Travers, professor of politics at London School of Economics, said in an interview. The British public have in effect voted “to leave the European Union but in a way that doesn’t affect their lives or their jobs or anything to do with them or their sector,” he said.

After last week’s election, May insisted she would push ahead with her plans for Brexit, giving no hint that she intends to water down her desire to quit the single market and customs union. The prime minister told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday she would start exit talks within the next two weeks as envisaged, and focus on gaining a “reciprocal agreement” on EU citizens in the U.K. and British citizens abroad.

The kind of Brexit Britain gets may be as much in EU hands as those of the U.K government. What’s becoming clear, though, is that May’s Tory party is on the brink of another bitter round of infighting over Brexit, with pro-Europeans now feeling they have a chance to change the direction of policy. May faces a showdown with party lawmakers on Monday.

“She’s got to form a consensus,” lawmaker Anna Soubry, a former minister who wanted to keep the U.K in the EU, told the BBC. “The British people have rejected a hard Brexit.”

Price of Membership

Business executives would likely welcome any moderation of May’s hard Brexit stance if it entailed continued access to the single market, even as they expressed dismay at the uncertainty caused by the election shock.

“Most people in the U.K. won’t forgive Theresa May” for calling an early election, said Martin Frost, chief executive officer of Cambridge Medical Robotics, a U.K. company that’s developing a robotic system for surgery. “On the marginally positive side, perhaps it means a softer Brexit.”

Yet Tory right-wingers will fight to keep Britain out of the single market because the price of membership is too high for them. It would include accepting unlimited European immigration, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the requirement to pay billions of pounds into the EU budget every year -- all of which May promised voters she’d end.

Pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin attacked his party colleagues who want to use May’s weakness to dilute her vision of a clean break. Former cabinet ministers Michael Heseltine and George Osborne “should shut up,” Jenkin told Sky News on Sunday, as he attacked “avidly pro-European colleagues who have never really accepted the result” of last year’s Brexit referendum.

“You only have to see the ardent pro-Brexiteers out and about on the TV today saying nothing has changed to know that everything has changed,” said Travers. He said May is more likely to be able to get support in Parliament with a softer Brexit policy that could gain the backing of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the anti-Brexit SNP, even if that meant losing the votes of Brexiteers in her own party.

May wouldn’t have enough votes in Parliament to support her vision of a hard Brexit, and would find it very difficult to pass laws, one minister said. This means the kind of deal she seeks with the EU will inevitably be softer, that person said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It could even lead to the U.K. remaining inside the EU’s single market and customs union, which May had planned to leave.

Membership of the customs union is regarded as key to avoiding a so-called “hard border” between the north and south of the island of Ireland. Withdrawing from the EU’s common customs agreement could require customs checkpoints to be set up along the border between the Irish Republic, which is in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which as part of the U.K. will be leaving the bloc.

The DUP leader Arlene Foster -- who will meet May to finalize the power-sharing deal on Tuesday -- has said no-one wants a hard Brexit. Any Brexit deal must reflect the “specific circumstances of Northern Ireland,” Foster has said.

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